NYC to Washington: Drop Bucks!


The city’s fair share is getting stretched thin

For decades—at least since the Daily News proclaimed “Ford to City: Drop Dead” in 1975—New York City has felt shortchanged by Washington, as well as by the state government in Albany. This has emerged as a theme in the Democratic campaigns for mayor—a theme the candidates weld to their frequent criticism that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is too close to his Republican allies to fight for our city’s fair share. The question is whether even a fair share would pay for all the stuff that the Democrats say Bloomberg should be fighting for.

Last week, Anthony Weiner’s campaign announced, “As mayor, Weiner will fight for full federal transportation funding and for New York City to get its fair share.” In an earlier campaign message, Virginia Fields said being mayor “means showing the political will to demand that Governor Pataki and the legislature give our schools the funding that the courts have ordered.”

In an interview last Friday, the Voice asked Gifford Miller what he’d do to solve the growing problem of nondiscretionary spending—stuff like Medicaid and pensions that that keep eating up a bigger share of the city budget. “Look, there’s only a couple ways you can deal with it. You can raise taxes, you can cut spending drastically, or you can find a way to reshape the playing field,” Miller said. That means “dealing with the structural problems that cause us to come back to these gaps every year,” he added, “And the most important to my mind is that fair share to Washington and Albany.” He specifically mentioned the unique role New York City plays in Medicaid; it is the only municipality that must contribute such a high percentage of the costs.

And when asked Tuesday night at a mayoral forum about domestic violence shelters, Freddy Ferrer said that when he’s mayor he’ll spend less time “jetting off to Bermuda” and instead fly down to Washington to fight for Section 8 vouchers.

Miller estimates the deficit to New York City at $24 billion. That’s not chump change; it’s equal to roughly half the city budget. The robustness of that figure, however, depends on how you break down spending. The Center for Government Research estimated that from fiscal years 1992 through 1997, New York City paid $717 million more in taxes to Albany than it got back. The city and its suburbs, taken together, donated about $5 billion to other areas of the state. But, the report points out, while the city gets less than its revenue share of some state funds, it “receives more than its revenue share in direct payments to local governments or individuals.”

And even if the math is sound, one wonders if it is really politically feasible to get anything near $24 billion back from Albany and Washington, even if a mayor really fought the good fight. A separate question is whether to do so would be right.

The Kennedy School of Government says New York State pays $835 per capita more to the feds than we get back. Some states that get better deals—that get more services than they pay for—include New Mexico, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Those states also happen to have higher rates of poverty than New York. Do they owe us?